Centers of Attention
The ’90s best centers.
by Allen Powell
The most valuable players in the NBA are a rock solid point guard, and dominant two-way big men. We’ve already reviewed who manned the point with poise and panache in the 1990s; now it’s time to consider the big men who patrolled the paint. Many of the names are no surprise, but a few of them just might make you say “Hmmmm…”
Throughout his amazing career Hakeem Olajuwon was known to many fans as “The Dream.” But, for opposing centers, power forwards and coaches he was always recurring nightmare.
It started when Olajuwon made his debut as “Big Brother Dream Shake” while a member of Phi Slama Jamma at the University of Houston, and he and Clyde Drexler provided free facials to college players across the country.
It continued in the NBA when just two years removed from being the first pick in famed ‘84 draft, Dream joined forces with a creaky-kneed Ralph Sampson to challenge the Bird-led Celtics for the NBA‘s Golden Globe. The Rockets would fall, but Olajuwon would serve notice that before Christian Okoye ever picked up a football he was the real Nigerian Nightmare.
The League’s night terrors only got worse in the 1990s because at his apex Olajuwon could drop 27 points, 12 boards, 3 assists and 4 blocks and never break his cool. Dream would never conquer Mount Jordan, but unlike his peers, Hakeem took advantage of Mike’s brief dalliance in baseball’s minor leagues to snatch two rings of his own.
Whether he was schooling The Admiral by the Riverwalk, or teaching a break dancing Shaq the meaning of “craftiness“, there can be no doubt that Olajuwon was the defining center of the 1990s.
Sweet dreams suckers.
Does unapologetic dominance impress you, or is well-rounded brilliance more your cup of tea? Your preference likely dictates whether placing David Robinson over Shaquille O’Neal on this list seems like a logical move, or proof of idiocy.
Like the sun, David Robinson is an underappreciated star. Few people marvel at the sunlight that sustains life, and many NBA fans don’t realize that in his prime Robinson was a two-way player for the ages. Labeled “a black Adonis” by sportswriters infatuated with his physique, the beastliness of Robinson’s game was often overshadowed by his attention gathering deltoids and pectorals.
But, unlike some players, Robinson wasn’t content with living off his physical gifts; instead he developed a smooth lefty-stroke from 15-feet that made his first step even more devastating. In his best statistical year, Robinson posted a ridiculous 30 points, 11 boards, 5 assists and 3 blocks, and that was the year before he finagled the MVP away from Olajuwon!
Sadly, Robinson’s achievements have been overshadowed by Hakeem’s dominance, and the fact that he never won a ring without Tim Duncan. Like Sol, it seems like Robinson’s brilliance will be forever hidden in plain sight.
Shaq may be the most physically gifted player to ever enter the NBA.
Younger fans probably scoff at that notion when considering the plodding journeyman now sporting Celtics’ green. Even those fans who remember O’Neal slamming his purple and gold bulk into opposing centers until they whimpered might not appreciate the full range of his gifts.
But, trust and believe, when Shaq was sporting the Magic’s pinstripes his incomparable combination of speed, grace, agility, leaping ability and strength was awe-inspiring.
Shaq was a bigger,, meaner and more coordinated version of Dwight Howard when he turned the Magic from laughingstock to championship contender.
Consider the numbers from his rookie year in 1993 when he averaged 23 points, 14 boards and 3.5 blocks, and immediately made the Magic a .500 team. The next year, paired with Penny Hardaway, O’Neal would drop 29 points and 13 boards while shooting 60 percent from the field
But, Shaq always had a problem staying on the court, and by the middle of the decade he regularly missed 20 games a season. His defensive numbers declined, and his teams, despite their talent, were becoming known for being swept from the Playoffs. The Diesel wouldn’t truly begin his reign until the next decade, but even as a young buck battling wily vets he was a bad, bad man.
It was all about the scowl.
“Game face” doesn’t really do justice to what Patrick Ewing sported. Teammates, opponents and fans often call Ewing a “warrior”, and it’s easy to imagine that he considered every game a life or death battle.
How else can you explain the grim visage and plethora of perspiration he brought to every contest?
Ewing likely developed his glower by staring down racist fans who called him a “monkey” as he dominated high school basketball in Boston. The glare only improved when he joined forces with John Thompson at Georgetown and became college basketball’s Bad Boys without actually doing anything bad. By the time, Ewing got to New York, he had learned that basketball was more than just a game, and his attitude reflected that truth.
Ewing wasn’t better than the names ahead of him on this list, but that’s true of most big men. Patrick was still a guaranteed 20 points and 10 boards in the 90’s, and even if he constantly failed to deliver a championship to the Mecca, he never failed to leave his heart and soul on the hardwood. He was the leader of Knicks’ teams that are forever linked to gritty, hard-nosed basketball.
That’s a legacy that suits him.
What’s that old saying about the size of the fight in the dog?
Alonzo Mourning wasn’t a particularly large man as far as NBA centers go. He wasn’t ridiculously athletic and didn’t have a bevy of post moves. But, Zo was one of the toughest competitors and fiercest defenders the game has ever seen.
For example, most folks don’t know that Mourning averaged 20 and 10 with 3 blocks his rookie year, or that halfway through that year he had already set the CAREER blocks record for the Charlotte franchise. Throughout the 90’s, Mourning was one of most dependable offensive centers in the League, and on defense he was in an elite class.
But, the most enduring memories of Mourning come from the epic playoff battles waged between his Heat and their archrivals in New York. Many folks have unfairly blamed those literal slugfests for the NBA’s new rules about perimeter touching and its overreaction to fights between players. Zo typically lost those ugly skirmishes, but the raw emotion displayed by both teams still sparks nostalgia in many fans.
Who doesn’t love a good fight?
Deke. Mt. Mutombo. Gramps. The guy with the funny voice.
Those monikers were attached to Dikembe Mutombo during his impressive NBA career, but none of them truly encompass everything Mutombo embodied.
Class. Intelligence. Dignity. Rejection
That’s more like it.
Mutombo won the defensive player of the year award three times in the 1990’s, and four times overall in his career. He’s second on the all-time blocks list behind Hakeem Olajuwon, and in his prime never averaged fewer than 10 rebounds and 2 blocks a game, even if he rarely cracked the 14 point plateau.
Deke had the patented Georgetown scowl down pat, but with his finger wagging and cheerful off-court demeanor he never seemed too angry. Mutombo will always be known as a staunch defender, but his most enduring legacies are the hospital he built in his home country, and the sense that he truly cared about the world beyond basketball.
This is where the list got a little funky. There was a bottleneck for these last three positions and a decision had to be made about how much value to assign statistics and how much value to give potentially faulty recollection.
Statistics say that Rik Smits was an injury-prone, piss poor rebounder who never averaged 20 points per game for a season. Ah, but memory focused on Smits’ beautiful touch around the basket, his outstanding up-and-under move, and his refusal to back down from the brutes who attempted to punk him.
Smits was the second-best player on a perennial playoff team and championship contender. That’s the best way to describe him. He managed to carve out a respectable career in the League despite bad feet and distinct lack of jumping ability because he knew how to play the game. Alongside Reggie Miller, he was the go-to post player for the Indiana Pacers who counted on the “Davis Boys” to do all the dirty work in the paint. Smits wasn’t a star, but for a four or five year stretch he was definitely a problem for opposing coaches.
And the Dunkin’ Dutchman had a wicked nickname.
Rony Seikaly is something of a forgotten man in NBA history.
Seikaly was the first pick of the expansion Miami Heat, and at the time he was heralded as the perfect building block for the new franchise on South Beach.
Rony got off to a slow start, but worked his way into a consistent 16 points and 11 boards for much of his early career. Seikaly always seemed to play a little too fast for his brain, which was reflected in his extremely high fouls per game numbers. But, when under control, Seikaly could wheel and deal on the block with jump hooks and fadeaways, and he regularly crammed on the skulls of players who got their scouting reports from Sidney Deane.
Seikaly had the tools to be one of the greats, but almost seemed to view life in the League as afterthought. He didn’t mind letting general managers know they couldn’t hold him hostage for the money since his family was wealthy, and he even refused to report to camp in Golden State one year because he was unhappy with his role.
Last, but certainly not least, his ex-wife makes Glenn Rice’s ex-wife look like Lady Gaga.
This spot came down to Vlade Divac or Brad Daugherty. Should Vlade’s superior passing and flopping be rewarded, or should Daugherty’s injury shortened by still sublime career be recognized?
The flashes of brilliance Daugherty showed would not be denied.
Daugherty was a legit 20 and 10 in the ‘90s, and combined with Mark Price to form one of the League’s toughest little man/ big man combos. With a wide base, atrocious biker shorts and post moves galore, Daugherty was as fundamentally sound a big man as you could find. He played in three All-Star games in the 90’s and even made the All-NBA third team once. Before chronic back problems forced him to retire at 28, Daugherty seemed poised to round into the consummate building block, even as his Cavaliers continued to be foils for Jordan’s Bulls.
Sadly, we can only ask “what if”?
Vlade Divac was not dominant nor was he a star. His stats for the ’90s were right at 13 points and 9 rebounds. Despite his reputation as a passing big man without equal, his assist numbers aren’t even that eye-popping when compared to the other centers on this list.
But Vlade was a gamer. Who can forget him running with his arms down by his side to Magic Johnson for a hug after converting a sweet assist in the 1991 Finals? How the way Divac always seemed to have flop sweat and miasma of cigarette smoke around him in the middle of basketball games?
Divac was consistently good, and played well on some fairly talented teams. True, he is partially responsible for the horrible increase in flopping in the League, and he clearly didn’t care much about physical conditioning, but he understood the game. Divac played with smoothness and a flair that was fun to watch. His place on this list is arguable, but his game was not.